“Is this what I want or am I settling?”
When I moved to Bangkok, I didn’t expect to date. Articles abound warning women that they won’t find “true love” in Thailand. Fellow female expats told me: “Bangkok is a man desert.” Fresh from the unexpected end of a seven year relationship, I didn’t care. I wanted to be single. I’d come to Thailand to travel, not to marry. Still, a date every now and then would be nice. Surely the desert wasn’t completely barren.
It’s no secret that most men in Thailand are looking for Asian girlfriends. Foreign women I met, who’d lived in Bangkok for years, said, “You’re white and blonde. Get yourself a hobby and a Netflix account because you’re going to spend a lot of nights alone.” I started swiping through dating apps my first night in Bangkok. I didn’t know anyone and it seemed like a good way to meet people. I landed my first date on my third night: a Pakistani guy in town for business.
We met at a bar I’d read about online. We had a few beers, bonded over similar histories of recently being dumped and losing a parent, and ended the night with a hug. The next night we had drinks at my apartment. We talked and kissed until he said, “These two nights have been great. I think I’m falling in—” I held up my hand. “If you finish that sentence,” I said, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” The night fizzled and he left.
The following week I had two more dates: a statistician from India and a digital nomad from Canada. After them came a computer engineer from India, a writer from India, a dancer from Chicago, a doctor from Bangladesh, and a marketer from Singapore. Each date had its ups and downs: the digital nomad was easy to talk to, but cocky; the computer engineer was nice, but pushy; the writer was funny, but too young; the doctor was sweet, but too talkative; the dancer was fun, but suffocating; and the marketer was intelligent, but there was no spark. Of all the dates, only the statistician, Kushal, stood out.
Kushal was tall, witty, and bright with a smile that lifted his whole face. His dating profile promised discussions on literature or conversations in broken Spanish. For our first date we went to a French restaurant near his work. I learned that, like me (and like the Pakistani guy), Kushal had also recently been dumped by a long-distance long-term partner. “I’m just looking for friends,” he said.
“I hope that’s okay.” “Totally fine,” I said. “I’m not looking for anything serious.” We parted ways on the sidewalk with a hug. Kushal, I assumed, went home. I walked down the street to meet the digital nomad for drinks. For our second get together Kushal and I met at a craft beer house. I assumed we’d chat and part ways with a hug again. Instead, Kushal doled out flirtatious compliments and innuendos. When we stood to order drinks he said the silhouette of my dress distracted him. He wondered aloud if he’d get to see one of my tattoos. We ended the night at his apartment.
Over the next several weeks Kushal and I followed the same pattern: dinner and drinks, flirtatious banter, and back to his place. I liked him, but I was still committed to my singlehood. I kept using dating apps, swiping left and right whenever standing in a queue or bored on the train. My friends still reiterated “man desert.” I figured Kushal a watering hole: needed and rare.
When Kushal announced he was leaving Bangkok, I moved onto Arjun. Like most of my dates, Arjun was sweet and funny, although I often felt like he wasn’t listening to me. We went out for drinks, he met some of my friends, and we cooked dinner together (or, rather, he cooked and I handed him a tomato at one point). I liked him well enough, but would I have kept seeing him had I been anywhere other than a self-proclaimed man desert? Probably not. For starters, I was sure he was still in love with his ex. We also struggled to find much in common: I loved artsy films and reading, he only watched Bollywood movies or televised debates.
Still, I was in a barren wasteland of dates, right? You can’t afford to bypass a watering hole. Bordering thirty years old, I’d never really dated before moving to Bangkok. My teenage years had been spent on an island in the southeastern United States. Combining the expectations of the picturesque southern belle and a toned bikini body, anyone larger than a size six was deemed “fat” and therefore not date worthy. A solid size twelve, I watched as friends and classmates dated around like episodes of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. I dated one guy in high school.
We were barely a couple: he wouldn’t slow dance with me at prom and we kissed once by accident. It wasn’t until I moved to the Midwest for college that I found guys more excited by curvy women (and a strong group of girl friends who made me realise size does not equate beauty). I dated one guy for nearly four years. After him came another guy for one year. Then came my seven year relationship. To me, dating seemed like a right of passage for finding out who you are and what you want/need from a partner.
Somehow I’d skipped that step. By the time I’d gained the confidence to realise that I didn’t need to be worthy of dating someone, but they had to be worthy of dating me, I was in committed relationships. My relationships all started as friendships. No one asked me on a date or tried to woo me. I loved my boyfriends, but there were times when I thought, “Is this what I want or am I settling?” My single friends met interesting people at bars and coffee shops. Even when their dates were duds, they still had stories to tell ala Carrie Bradshaw and her friends in Sex and the City. It looked like fun. I felt envious.
My breakup before moving to Bangkok had been sudden and soul crushing. Coming just ten months after losing my father unexpectedly, it was the final leg of the chair that had been pulled from under me. I dated some in the months between the breakup and moving to Asia, but those months had been full of drunken tears, greasy lo mein, caring for a mother fresh out of surgery, stealing myself for the second funeralmy father’s side of the family insisted on having, and a hurricane season that took most of my belongings like a vindictive kleptomaniac.
The dates I’d had during those months didn’t feel fun or productive to learning what I needed from a future partner. They felt like desperate distractions. When friends warned I wouldn’t have a dating life in Bangkok I thought, “I haven’t had one for twenty nine years. Why start now?” Kushal eventually left Thailand, and Arjun and I flatlined when I ran into him while on a date with another guy. I was sad, but grateful for the end of both.
The more I saw Kushal and Arjun the more I started to prioritise them over other dates, a move which seemed to hover around “relationship territory.” I still wanted to be single, right? Yes, I told myself. You do. Now go talk to some Bumble matches. One night, when a date was several hours late, I complained to a friend via text. “I’ve been dressed and ready for hours,” I said. “Why am I putting up with this?”“This is Bangkok,” she replied. “It’s a man desert. If there’s a drink of water coming, you wait.” At the time I found her words funny.
They convinced me to not feel so upset that I had just waited three and a half hours for someone (three and a half hours! Are you kidding me?!). Later, though, I stared at her text. Was I in a desert? I scrolled through my Google calendar, where I list all of my dates because I’m an organised crazy person. Since arriving in Bangkok hardly a week had gone by without at least one date.
Most weeks had multiple dates, usually with different people. On one Saturday I’d managed three separate dates. A friend and I had gone on three different double dates. For being in a desert, I’d stayed pretty hydrated. The majority of my dates were one or two night flings: backpackers, people in town on business, and a handful of expat locals, who also just wanted something casual. There were even two dates – Kushal and Arjun – who had lasted a bit longer and were quite nice.
In just under half a year I’d experienced most of the dating types my friends had experienced since puberty: the Says I Love You Too Soon Guy; the Seems Great Until He Opens His Mouth Guy; the Emotionally Unavailable Guy; the Great Sex Guy (and conversely: the Hot But Bad at Sex Guy); the Still In Love with His Ex Guy; the He’s Nice, But There’s No Chemistry Guy; the Rejects You and Adds You on Facebook Guy; the One Night Stand Guy(s); and the You Like Him But You Don’t Want Your Heart to Break Again So You Runaway Guy; and the He’s Perfect and Amazing But This is The Wrong Place and Wrong Time Guy.
I’d moved to Bangkok expecting to continue my streak of never dating. Ending things with my seven year boyfriend had also made me believe I’d never click with anyone again (much less even feel comfortable with a partner again). Instead, what I found was a diverse, complex, sometimes frustrating, but mostly enjoyable dating scene. In areas that my ex and I often fought over, I finally found guys I agreed with.
Whereas I thought I’d never find anyone as nice and caring as my ex, suddenly I had a whole booklet of men who fit that description. Perhaps Bangkok is a desert and I’ve just had a string of luck. Maybe I say ‘yes’ to more guys than I should so the odds are stacked in my favour. Or maybe Bangkok is a desert for expats looking for (and ready for) a long term, committed relationship. For someone like me, who’s not looking for long term commitment and is simply trying to heal a broken heart through dating, Bangkok is an oasis.